After two years of pondering and waiting, hoping and praying, training and studying to serve as an ecumenical accompanier (EA), my flight from Toronto to Tel Aviv arrived.
I landed on time, excited and very alert despite the long full flight, crying children, murmuring families, and the sleepless night. As I walked by the walls adorned with images of famous Israelis, I summoned all my dramatic arts skills as I approached the immigration desk. I was immensely relieved to be asked only one question, "Is this your first visit to Israel?" My energetic response was, "Yes and I am very excited to be here." At that point, the officer handed me my passport and three-month visa and said, "Enjoy your stay in Israel." I couldn't believe it. I found myself turning around to confirm that I was truly in Tel Aviv.
I joined other travellers for a mini-van ride to Jerusalem. During the hour and a half drive, I was surprised at the aridity of the land. The rocky hillside slopes, brown in colour, were dotted with modern sand coloured buildings, all equipped with black water tanks on the roofs. Familiar blossoms of bougainvillea, hibiscus, and purple jacaranda were like fireworks in a dark sky brightening up the landscape. I even spied what looked like two Canadian ground hogs on a small patch of green grass.
Arriving in Jerusalem, close to the towering Damascus Gate, was beyond exciting. With fellow EAs, I set out to explore East Jerusalem by night. Lights were dramatically projected onto the walls of the gate. The wide stone steps, down to the gate, into the heart of the city were populated with young people out for an evening, workers returning home late from their shops, tourists, and locals alike. How many millions of people over two centuries had tried those steps? I found it very humbling. Masses of people ran river-like through the streets enroute to shops, socializing and praying. Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike, all milling together seemingly problem free.
As we made our way through narrow streets and alleyways, we entered the holiest Christian place on earth, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was built by Emperor Constantine's mother Helena in the third century. I must admit the ornate adornment of the Eastern Orthodox Church was a bit overwhelming. Lines of people snaked throughout the interior, up the steep steps to Golgotha, passed the Stone of Unction, into the tomb where Jesus was laid after his crucifixion. In spite of the circus-like atmosphere, modern mosaics, artwork, wafting incense, pilgrims chanting and weeping, I found myself alone in the tomb and spiritually moved. (The Garden of the Tomb is a much more beautiful pastoral setting which some claim was Jesus' resting place. It is an empty ancient tomb where one can ponder the gospel account of the death and resurrection of Jesus. As a Protestant, I found I responded more to this site than the former.) Christians had been in Jerusalem since the first century and now, I too, was here. It was a special moment for me.
In the daylight, Jerusalem took on a different feel. Tour groups from every country in the globe crowded into East Jerusalem to walk the Via Dolorosa and pray the stations of the cross. Some were singing, some carrying large crosses, some garbed in the clerical robes of three religions. Approaching the Western Wall, we watched the bar mitzvahs of many young Jewish men from the right-hand side of the plaza. We were separated from the activities and were with other women, some standing on chairs to see their sons go through the rite of passage.
Palestinian and Israeli shopkeepers, if men then often smoking cigarettes, were busy opening their shops or stalls in the streets, selling everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to baby clothes and kitchen wares. Hawking their wares in loud voices to attract buyers, each one seeming to yell louder than the other. Laughing and crying, children of three different religions were seen tagging along at their mothers' sides. A simple smile in the direction of the mother, no matter which religion, was communication between women of the world.
It was overwhelming at times. I felt privileged to be a Christian, one of millions. For me it remains a humbling experience
I walked parts of this route every day on route to classes. Each day, awareness grew that this was not just any other important city of the world. At every corner, every meeting point of alleyways, on street corners, at the front of the gate or just inside the gate, were groups of soldiers with rifles at the ready. Many of these were young people, members of the Israeli military. On Jewish holidays, the numbers swelled. My attention to city sites became increasingly different, more focused. Still aware of the hustle, the colours, and the excitement, I now began to notice soldiers questioning young teenagers, asking to see their green permit. I noticed a young man standing in his sock feet while his shoes were examined by soldiers. Tourists were refused photographs and beggars asked to move so military presence could stand where they were sitting. Very few soldiers spoke unless to each other or in the questioning of a Palestinian. And the ever present rifle, even carried by off-duty soldiers, was always in full view. This was indeed occupied Palestine. I saw that the maps from students on the street had only Hebrew names. Nothing of Palestinian cities. One set of rules for one people and another for the second. The sheen of the holy city took on a tarnish.
Meanwhile the legions of silent, stealthy, feral cats saw everything. Hundreds of them insinuating themselves through all barriers. Winding their way through the bars of gates through the legs of soldiers, past checkpoints, in and out of stores and alleyways like an ever-watching presence. Imagine what they see on a day-to-day basis and what stories they could tell?
— A. Margaret is a retired secondary school teacher and Curriculum Leader from the Toronto District school Board and an active member of The United Church of Canada. Her strong faith has led her through the long journey to participation in the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). She feels it is a privilege to act out her faith in a practical manner as peace and justice have been on her radar for many years.
The World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) is an initiative under the WCC’s Ecumenical Campaign to End the Illegal Occupation of Palestine: Support a Just Peace in the Middle East. Its mission is to accompany churches in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in their non-violent actions and concerted advocacy efforts to end the occupation and support a just peace in the Middle East.